So I find myself sitting on the National Mall at 10:15 a.m. on Jan. 20, with a page from the Washington Post serving as a blanket, looking out at a sea of thousands of heavy boots that undoubtedly contained multiple pairs of socks and a few foot warmers. I had been standing since before 6 a.m. and needed to give my knees a break. I was cold, tired and feeling a little claustrophobic in a crowd that would eventually number two million. We were about a half mile from the Capitol, dependent on a Jumbotron to glimpse the day’s events. At that moment I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” There were still two hours before the new president would take the oath of office, and I was in no mood to wait.
But wait I did, and as tears welled up in my eyes when Barack Obama took the oath of office at 12:04 p.m., I realized why I was there — to witness history. And all of my doubts melted away and all the inconveniences became inconsequential.
There were so many images of that day and the two previous days that I will never forget. On Sunday, the “We Are One” concert produced many memorable moments, like a crowd of 500,000 singing “This Land Is Your Land,” led by folk legend Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen, and Garth Brooks leading a chorus of “American Pie.” People standing in line for up to an hour to have their pictures taken with the now-famous stylized portrait of Obama by Shepard Fairey hanging in the National Portrait Gallery. Whole families getting their photos taken in front of the Canadian Embassy’s banner that proclaimed “Canada Welcomes President Obama.” Seeing the not-yet-president’s motorcade speed down the street. People eagerly buying any souvenir with Obama’s image (or, even more desirous, his family’s image.) Crowds so large that it took 30 minutes to get out of the Metro station. Waiting 20 minutes to cross the street as tens of thousands tried to get to their destinations. Arriving on the mall at daybreak Tuesday morning as a beautiful pink sunrise served as a backdrop to the Capitol, which was adorned with flags and seemed to glow from within. The image seemed to symbolize a new day for America.
But what I will remember most is the joyousness of the people who gathered Tuesday. Despite the difficulties and indignities that come with packing two million people together in the cold and making them stand for seven or eight hours, no one complained. Everyone shared stories about why they were there, how long they had traveled to get there, and what it meant to them to be there. It was like a family reunion, but with people you did not know. Much has been reported about the diversity of the crowd, and I can attest that all those reports are true. There were people of every color, gender, sexual orientation, age, economic status and nationality.
And at 12:04, when the president placed his hand upon Lincoln’s bible, you could have heard a pin drop (if that were possible in a grassy lawn.) Two million people stood silent, with the exception of an occasional sniffle that signaled the emotion of the moment. As President Obama addressed the nation, there were many cheers that punctuated his speech, and the sounds of millions of gloved hands clapping. The crowd hung on every word.
The event made me think a lot about my late father. My interest in politics developed at the kitchen table when my father would almost nightly rant about the latest injustice he perceived against the “workin’ man.” There was never any question about which political party we belonged to — in our house, there was only one.
But despite his strong sense of equality and justice, there was one group of people he could never bring himself to see as his equal — African Americans. Growing up in several small Ohio towns, he never personally knew any such people, but he was sure they were different. And as someone who struggled to earn a living in heavy construction, he undoubtedly saw African Americans as competitors on the ladder of upward mobility. I stopped encouraging him to vote in 1968 when he cast his ballot for George Wallace. No one could ever convince him that his racist views were unfounded, and we learned the futility of challenging his racial epithets.
But this past June, as he lay gravely ill in the hospital, he told my husband in what would be his last conversation before he slipped into a coma that if Barack Obama got the nomination, he would vote for him.
As I watched President Obama take the oath of office, I was reminded that like my father, we are all shaped by our personal histories. But on a few rare occasions, our collective history as a nation can redefine that personal history. I believe my father would have been proud of his country on Tuesday.
Floyd is director of the Ward M. Canaday Center for Special Collections, university archivist and professor of library administration.